‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

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‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Iron Man 3’ Fares Better Than the Average Threequel

Iron Man 3 poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2013.

Robert Downey, Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man in “Iron Man 3” which finally made its way to movie theatres after an endless advertising blitz. Then again, it hasn’t been long since we last saw him as he was in “The Avengers” which came out last summer. It makes you wonder if Downey, Jr. might be getting a little sick of playing Tony Stark and his alter ego as this role has monopolized his time over the past few years. But in “Iron Man 3,” the actor finds a fresh way to portray this iconic comic book character as he becomes afflicted by something I know more about than I would ever care to: panic attacks.

That’s right, ever since his near-death experience in “The Avengers,” Stark has been having serious anxiety problems and is constantly worried he won’t be able to protect the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But there’s an even bigger problem on the horizon for him and it comes in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an unrepentant terrorist who leads an international terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings. The Mandarin is out to punish America and its President, Ellis (William Sadler), for their crimes against humanity, and also for trying to adopt Chinese culture in such a ridiculously fake way.

In addition, Stark has to deal with his ex-flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist he arrogantly rebuffed back in 1999. In the present, Killian has become a brilliant scientist who has developed the Extremis virus which cured him of his own physical disabilities, and we soon find it also gives those exposed to it superhuman strength and the power to generate extreme heat. Will it be used as a weapon for bad against good? Is this a superhero movie?

The big news about “Iron Man 3” is Jon Favreau who directed the last two installments has stepped out of the director’s chair, and in his place is Shane Black, the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and who eventually directed one of his screenplays with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black seems like an unusual choice to helm a summer blockbuster, but the change in directors proves to be a good thing as Black focuses on character as much as he does on the spectacle. It’s a darker entry than the last two films, but Black still injects a lot of humor into the proceedings.

Now where “The Dark Knight Rises” was more about Bruce Wayne than it was about Batman, “Iron Man 3” is more about Tony Stark than his alter ego. In fact, we don’t see Iron Man in action as much as we did previously or in “The Avengers” for that matter. Some might see this as a serious flaw, but I think it benefits the story greatly. Being Iron Man has become a serious addiction for Stark to where he can’t sleep and function normally unless he’s working on one of his darn suits, and he’s never been the easiest guy to be around. Clark Kent and Peter Parker struggled greatly with their alter egos, but Stark’s position proves to be far more precarious.

Downey, Jr. could almost walk his way through this iconic role of his, but he still captures the different sides of Tony Stark beautifully. Even when he is a bit too dismissive to 10-year old Harley (Ty Simpkins), we still love the actor to death. Come to think of it, is there another actor in Hollywood who can make arrogance look sexier than Downey, Jr.? I think not.

Kingsley is the kind of actor who can play any role, and this has been the case for a long time. As The Mandarin, he creates an ominous presence in “Iron Man 3” which makes you believe he can be a nasty threat anywhere and everywhere. My only frustration with him was, even before I saw this sequel, I knew he wouldn’t be able to top the most malevolent prick he has ever brought to life in the movies: Don Logan from “Sexy Beast.” Then again, when “Iron Man 3” reaches a certain point, it becomes very clear why this is the case.

Pearce can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, but his last few movies have had him portraying the slimiest of villains (check out his performance in “Lawless”). He succeeds in making Aldrich Killian both an unfortunate victim and a selfish bastard all in one, and you have to give Black and his co-screenwriter Drew Pearce credit for giving us more than your one-dimensional baddie. Pearce always knows how to create a nemesis we just love to despise.

Paltrow gets her biggest role yet in the “Iron Man” franchise this time around, and I could tell you why but this would be giving away far too much. The important thing is she looks to be having a blast playing Pepper Potts this time around, and her fun is contagious.

Hall is, as always, a very appealing presence, and she is terrific as Dr. Maya Hansen. James Dale Badge makes Eric Savin, one of The Mandarin’s henchman, a ruthless bastard you want to see taken down ASAP. William Sadler seems like an unlikely choice to play the President of the United States after seeing him play the bad guy in “Die Hard 2” and the Grim Reaper in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” but he sells himself in the role with no problems. And while I still miss Terence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle still gives an excellent performance as that character.

Everyone who reads my reviews knows I usually expect the third movie in a trilogy to be the one which destroys a franchise, but “Iron Man 3” doesn’t do that. I liked it more than “Iron Man 2” which had far too much going on in it, and the change in directors serves this franchise well. Black has made an entertaining and compelling film which brings closure to this particular Marvel Studios trilogy. But then again, it’s highly unlikely this will be the last time we’ll see Downey, Jr. as Iron Man.

As always, be sure to stay through the end credits for the return of another Marvel Comics character.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Iron Man 2’ is Overloaded but Still a lot of Fun

Iron Man 2 poster

It was too easy to expect “Iron Man 2” to be better than the original. Many comic book movie sequels in recent years have blown away their predecessors to where you struggle to remember what the previous films were about. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “Blade II” and “The Dark Knight” made us believe it was mandatory for sequels to be more enthralling because all the origin stuff was finally out of the way to where things could become a whole lot more interesting.

I was worried “Iron Man 2” would end up being like “Spider-Man 3,” a film whose massive disappointment still irks me years after its release. That sequel had far too much going on in it to where I quickly lost interest, and it was such a comedown from the brilliant “Spider-Man 2.” You’d hope the filmmakers and studios would remember how these movies do best with just one villain for the superhero to deal with. Sometimes you can get away with two, but you may be asking for trouble if you go beyond that.

With that said, “Iron Man 2” is still a lot of fun. Regardless of the flaws and clichés this time around, it is still the kind of experience you hope to have with a summer movie like this. Director Jon Favreau is back as is the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose heroics prove to be every bit as big as his ego.

This sequel starts six months after Tony has come out to the world as Iron Man, feeling no need to disguise himself in some geeky disguise like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. He makes a grand entrance at the Stark Expo which has since been relocated to Flushing, New York, and he resists the urge to make his technology available to the U.S. military. Regardless of the demands of smarmy Senator Stern (Gary Shandling is great fun to watch here) to make Tony turn over the Iron Man suit over to him, Tony stands confident in telling everyone he has successfully privatized world peace.

As always, success breeds enemies, and you can only go so high before you get knocked off your pedestal. The vicious knock down comes from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a deeply embittered and heavily tattooed Soviet physicist who is led by his father to believe Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had betrayed him by deporting him from America. Ivan eventually puts together his own arc reactor which allows him to use these electrified whips to inflict serious damage on objects and especially humans foolish enough to come within 20 feet of him. Clearly, Ivan has spent at least a decade in prison, and he has tattoos covering just about every section of his body. It made me think about what Robert Mitchum said about Max Cady in the “Cape Fear” remake:

“Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him!”

Rourke is a lot of fun to watch in this role which has him doing a pretty good Russian accent, and it’s a vast improvement over the crazy Irish brogue he tried to pull off in “A Prayer for The Dying.” Like the best actors, he focuses on the pain which drives his character, giving us something much greater and more fearsome than your typical one-dimensional villain. The only downside of his performance is that we don’t get to see enough of him. After one great fight scene on a race trick, we have to wait for Ivan’s electric whipping act to return in the film’s final act. Still, this is Rourke we’re talking about, and he gives it his all here like he did in “The Wrestler.” If there is one thing which hasn’t changed, it’s that Rourke still plays characters who never take the time to shampoo their hair.

Tony’s other chief nemesis is Justin Hammer, a business rival looking to create his own line of Iron Man suits since Tony is unwilling to share his. Plus, Hammer is looking to get into the Pentagon, a place Stark cannot see himself partying at. Hammer is played Sam Rockwell who provides a good dose of comic relief while still giving his character a nasty edge. You can feel the relentless resentment Hammer has for Stark and how it spills over into bringing Ivan on board not so much out of respect, but as a chance to tear down the empire Stark Industries has built up over the years. Rockwell continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today, and I loved how he tried to mimic Tony’s dance onto the stage at his own show to little avail.

The other big addition to “Iron Man 2” is Scarlett Johansson who plays Natalie Rushman, Tony’s new personal assistant. But eventually she is revealed to be a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. named Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who is flexible in ways her enemies only wish they were. The coolest fight scenes in “Iron Man 2” belong to Johansson, and she dominates the screen every time she’s onscreen. Her cool confidence combines with an irresistible sexiness. Like Rourke, she is underused here, but she is fantastic to watch throughout.

And of course, we have returning characters such as Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Pepper ends up inheriting more responsibilities such as becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, having appeared in the post credits sequence of “Iron Man.”

Also returning to Tony’s side is Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, only this time he’s played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fantastic actor and it is fun to see Rhodey try on one of those Iron Man suits, but I miss Terence Howard in the role. Howard brought a gravity to Rhodes which balanced out perfectly with Stark’s uncontainably egocentric personality. It’s no fault of Cheadle’s that Rhodes is not as strong a character this time around.

Watching “Iron Man 2” quickly reminded me of how good the first one was. Yes, it was an origin movie, but it was also one of the better ones in how fresh it felt and of how invested it was in the characters as well as special effects, something other summer blockbusters could learn from. We were left wanting more, but we also didn’t leave the theater feeling partially or completely unfulfilled. “Iron Man” left us patiently waiting for the sequel instead of craving for it in record time. Considering how good the first one was, we wanted the filmmakers to make as good a follow up as humanly possible.

“Iron Man 2,” however, is somewhat undone by putting too much into one movie. There are too many characters and bad guys here to where some don’t get enough of a chance to develop into something more interesting than usual. But Favreau keeps everything moving at a swift pace, and the cast is perfectly chosen as each one gets their moment to shine and bring their own uniqueness to their character.

But the one guy who really holds this franchise together is Downey Jr., and not once does he try to compromise Tony Stark/Iron Man and make him easily likable. Whenever Tony ends up acting like a jerk, we know what fuels his character; a despair over knowing how that the thing which saved him may also kill him sooner than he would prefer. I’m also thrilled he didn’t turn Tony into another superhero who constantly whines about the responsibilities they are forced to deal with. Tony wants all those responsibilities, and you know that with Downey Jr. playing the role, he will never shy away from what is expected of him.

I’m glad to say “Iron Man 2” is no “Spider-Man 3” thank goodness, but it could have been had Favreau and company not kept things going at the right pace. In the future, let’s hope Marvel sticks with one villain instead of two or more as it will make for a more effective motion picture. Still, all we ask from a summer movie like this is for it to be a lot of fun, and this one gives audiences a very entertaining ride.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Flight’ is Not What I Expected it to Be

Flight movie poster

The advertisements for Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are actually quite deceptive. It almost looks to be a mystery movie as we wonder if Denzel Washington’s character of Whip Whitaker was drunk or not when he crash-landed the commercial airplane he was flying. Whip ended up saving a lot of lives, but is the company which owns the airline he flies for trying to make him take the blame so they can reduce their loses? Looking at the commercials and trailers for “Flight,” it looked as if the film was being sold as a relatively easygoing cinematic affair. However, it turns to be something far more complex and ambiguous than what Hollywood is used to putting out.

“Flight” isn’t a mystery in the slightest, but instead a character study about a man who is overwhelmed by his addictions and has yet to be honest not only with others, but most of all with himself. From the start, we can see Captain Whip Whitaker is one messed up dude. Waking up in his hotel room after an evening tryst with stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), we see him drink some beer, smoke a cigarette, and arguing with his ex-wife over their son’s school tuition while snorting some cocaine. All of this happens before he puts on his uniform and heads over to his plane to get ready for takeoff.

Whip clearly has no business flying an airplane under these conditions, but fly it he does. When a malfunction suddenly forces it into a vertical dive, he manages to roll the plane over to where he’s flying upside down, and he does so just long enough to stabilize the descent and land it in an open field. Next thing Whip knows, he is waking up in a hospital room only to discover the real nightmare for him is about to begin.

It says a lot about the star power of Washington and Zemeckis that they could get a movie like “Flight” made today. Made for only $30 million, far less than what it cost for Zemeckis to make “The Polar Express” or “A Christmas Carol,” this is more of a character driven drama from the 1970’s as it gives us a main character who is not particularly likable, and yet we are compelled to follow him all the way to the movie’s end.

What I loved about the screenplay by John Gatins is how it revels in the ambiguity of its characters and the situations they are stuck in. We know Whip was far from sober when flying the plane, and yet we cannot help but wonder if his heroic act can somehow excuse his personal sins. His lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, terrific as always), tells him how ten other pilots were placed in flight simulators which recreated the event, and of how they ended up killing everybody on board. But there is one big difference between Whip and all those pilots: they were all sober.

We can always count on Washington to give us some of the best performances in movies today, and his work in “Flight” is unsurprisingly superb. It’s also the riskiest role he has played in a long time as his character is far from likable and apparently determined to drive everyone who tries to reach him away. Heck, Detective Alonzo Harris from “Training Day” almost seems like a nicer person than Whip as Alonzo tried to have his partner killed, but we always find ourselves rooting for Washington no matter which character he plays, and he does an exceedingly brave job in uncovering this character’s wounded humanity for all of us to see.

I do have to say, however, how amazed I am at the enormous amount of alcohol Whip consumes throughout the movie. Any normal person would have likely experienced liver failure long before this story reaches its final act.

Much has been said about how this is Zemeckis’ first live action movie since the year 2000 when he made “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath,” but people should really take note of how this is the first R-rated movie he has directed since “Used Cars” and that one came out in 1980. Having made so many films largely geared towards the whole family, it’s tempting to think he was no longer in a position to helm one with such complex characters and issues. But with “Flight,” Zemeckis does some of his most memorable work behind the camera in some time. There are moments where he paints some dramatic strokes broader than they need to be, but he never once shies away from the ambiguous nature and fascinating questions which Gatins’ screenplay elicits. He also does a brilliant job in one crucial scene involving a minibar in a hotel room, and the suspense of it had the audience I saw the movie with absolutely enthralled. And, of course, he stages a very frightening plane crash that tops the one he put together in “Cast Away.” Even from the safety of a movie theater, this sequence is truly harrowing to sit through, and its images hang over the rest of “Flight” like an ominous shadow.

Another superb performance comes from Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole Maggen, a former photographer trying to free herself from the throes of a nasty heroin habit. Reilly may be best remembered for her role in the deeply unsettling horror film “Eden Lake,” and her portrayal here feels very honest in how she presents an addict’s day to day struggle to stay clean.

There’s also a number of other terrific supporting performances to be found here from actors like John Goodman who looks to be channeling Jeff Bridges’ Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” for his role of Harling Mays. Goodman provides the movie with its much-needed scenes of comic support, and he proves to be as entertaining here as he was in “Argo.”

Bruce Greenwood, who increasingly lends the movies he appears in a strong integrity, is also really good as Whip’s longtime friend, Charlie Anderson. Also showing up in a small but pivotal role is the great Melissa Leo whose sweet voice can’t hide her relentless pursuit of the truth as FAA investigator Ellen Block.

I didn’t think I’d see another movie in 2012 other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” which offered an equal amount of complex characters in ambiguous situations. As a result, “Flight” turned out to be a big surprise for me as it challenges viewers in ways a strong dramatic film should. It offers us yet another great Denzel Washington performance, and it reminds us of what a terrific director Robert Zemeckis can be regardless of whether or not the characters in his films are computer generated.

* * * ½ out of * * * *